Friday, December 04, 2009

Immortality projects

A friend recently introduced me to George Monbiot's blog and it's excellent. Monbiot writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper in the UK and has written extensively on global climate change, corporate power, and environmental protection. He also has one of the finest posts you'll ever read on career advice for aspiring journalists.

In a recent post, Monbiot gave a great short summary of Ernest Becker's writing and I want to quote from it briefly and then riff on the ideas that came up in connection with this idea:

In 1973 the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker proposed that the fear of death drives us to protect ourselves with "vital lies" or "the armour of character"(10). We defend ourselves from the ultimate terror by engaging in immortality projects, which boost our self-esteem and grant us meaning that extends beyond death. Over 300 studies conducted in 15 countries appear to confirm Becker's thesis(11). When people are confronted with images or words or questions that remind them of death they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it and increasing their striving for self-esteem(12).

I think Ernest Becker is correct -- immortality projects drive so much of what we do on this planet. Capitalism and the pursuit of wealth are immortality projects, religion is an immortality project, family can be an immortality project, writing, careers, even really intense hobbies can become immortality projects. So much of what we do is an attempt to build a name or thing or idea that lives on long after we do.

It makes sense then that our fights over jobs or politics or religion are so fierce -- the other person who disagrees with me or who is blocking me from accomplishing what I want to accomplish -- is getting in the way of my immortality project and that cannot stand!

And then one day you realize that it is all so silly. In all likelihood there is no immortality to be gained anyway, so what exactly are we fighting for? Time swallows everything and appears to be merciless. One of my all time favorite passages in any book is this from Milan Kundera in the Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Tereza's dream reveals the true function of kitsch: Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.

With even just a little honest examination, all of these immortality projects all become just kitsch. Capitalism is just a folding screen set up to curtain off death. Religion is just a folding screen set up to curtain off death. World's records, tall buildings, that cherished book project, is just a folding screen set up to curtain off death.

The path of the Buddhist monk then makes sense. To their credit, Buddhists are willing to take a long gaze at things as they truly are. Looking into the abyss, they come to realize there is really nothing to push back against and they slow down, stop, and sit still in silence for the rest of their lives. But then of course Buddhism can easily devolve into its own immortality project too so it shows just how difficult it is to escape from the clutches of kitsch.

Lincoln was really on to something when he said, "The world will little note nor longer remember what we say here..." In fact I wonder if the reason the Gettysburg address has become so famous is because of Lincoln's existential rambling at the beginning of the speech that really captured the frailty of the human condition.

But here's the thing, I think we need immortality projects in order to keep our sanity. Even if we know they are silly, even if we know they are untrue, I think we should do them anyway. I think immortality projects are the motorboat that keeps us one step ahead of the sharks of depression. When I'm actively, passionately pursuing my own personal immortality project, I'm really quite happy. Immortality projects are often the thing that gives life meaning and brings us into connection with others. And even if, as the Landmark Forum folks point out, life is actually empty and meaningless, so what? We should still pursue that thing that we think is important just because we think it is important. I think recognizing that our immortality projects are silly enables us to hold them more loosely, to back off when they start making us miserable. But at the same time, I think they should be pursued because they make us happy. And if we can do it lightly, then perhaps it can bring us into greater communion with our fellow travelers on this rock.


Footnotes from the first blockquote above:

10. Ernest Becker, 1973. The Denial of Death, pp47-66. Republished 1997. Free Press Paperbacks, New York.

11. Tom Pyszczynski et al, 2006. On the Unique Psychological Import of the Human Awareness of Mortality: Theme and Variations. Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 4, 328–356.

12. Jeff Greenberg et al, 1992. Terror Management and Tolerance: does mortality salience always intensify negative reactions to others who threaten one’s worldview? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 63, No 2 212-220.

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